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Wilkes-Barre

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Wilkes-Barre is the oldest town in northeastern Pennsylvania. Named by its secession-minded Yankee founders to honor John Wilkes (1727–1797) and Isaac Barre (1726–1802), the two members of the British Parliament most vocal in support of the colonial cause in the late eighteenth century, it was laid out in 1770 by Major John Durkee with the assistance of David Mead, a Philadelphia surveyor engaged by the Connecticut incorporators of the Susquehanna Company. Since the formation of Luzerne County in 1786, it has been the county seat.

The town plan intriguingly combines New England traditions and Enlightenment rationalism, setting Wilkes-Barre apart from Philadelphia and Lancaster. Durkee's gridded layout, bounded by the present-day North and South streets and running from the Susquehanna River to Pennsylvania Avenue, provided fifty subdivisions, clearly intended—not unlike William Penn's “Greene Countrie towne”—for small family farms. But instead of a compact market square, Wilkes-Barre's plat was centered on a two-acre “Public Square,” recalling New Haven's town green. Turned diagonally with respect to the grid, the square was intended to contain the village's public buildings. Another substantial plot of land stretching along the Susquehanna River followed the New England custom of “common” use. New streets have long since divided the enormous blocks of the original plan, and civic buildings no longer occupy Public Square, but it and the River Common remain public and green.

Wilkes-Barre's subsequent growth, directed by the scions of its original families, was shaped by industry. In the early 1830s, it was reached by the North Branch Canal, which ran to the east of the town grid. In 1846 railroads came to parallel the canal, creating a heavy belt of industry, beyond which the first collieries were erected. Between this belt and the river, the original town retained much of its New England character, while beyond it there arose dense neighborhoods of miners’ houses. Wilkes-Barre's street names recall this historical sequence. Franklin and Washington are prominent in the original grid, followed by Jackson as a principal cross street; Civil War generals march their way up the Heights in the great era of industrial expansion, to die out with Custer and Reno near the top of the hill.

In 1967, when Wilkes-Barre's downtown was in decline, the city commissioned Philadelphia's Mitchell/Giurgola Architects to undertake a plan for a renewed center. Renewal was accelerated by the Hurricane Agnes flood of 1972. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Wilkes-Barre had access to federal power in the person of Congressman Daniel Flood, the influential House Appropriations Committee subchair, who unleashed a torrent of federal funds that washed away most of the city's Victorian center. Despite the focus on the downtown, much of the region's new energy has developed near the highways with shopping centers near I-81 and the Mohegan Sun Casino at Pocono Downs (PA 315, off I-80). The slots parlor blends generic production architecture by JCJ Architects of Hartford, Connecticut (2007), with hints of the west but lacks the glitter of Las Vegas and the toughness of Pennsylvania. The only regional hint is artwork inside by the local Baut Studio that represents the region's coal being transformed into diamonds.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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